Adam Higginbotham’s “Midnight in Chernobyl” is a gripping, miss-your-subway-stop read. The details of the disaster pile up inexorably. They include worn control rod switches, the 2,000-ton reactor lid nicknamed Elena, a core so huge that understanding its behavior was impossible. Politicians lacked the technical knowledge to take action, while scientists who had the knowledge feared to provide it lest they lose their jobs or lives.
Higginbotham captures the nerve-racked Soviet atmosphere brilliantly, mostly through vivid details about the participants. Schedules were impossible, production quotas demanding, workers sloppy, budgets insufficient, rules disregarded. Warnings that the design was unsound were ignored.
He repeats this microscope/telescope approach throughout his account, interspersing action sequences drawn from his interviews with survivors, as well as court documents and memoirs, with more carefully plotted historical accounts that show how a disaster of this kind was always likely. He introduces his characters cautiously, allowing us to get to know them as managers, engineers and officers, before they are thrown into the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe.
Adam Higginbotham’s book is a three-part political tragedy that unfolds with terrifying inevitability: systemic failure, explosion, cover-up... Much of this has been covered before, not least by Plokhy, but, as one might expect from a journalist of his experience, Higginbotham is an accomplished storyteller. He has done a vast amount of research, much of it in interview form, resulting in a fine, fluent microhistory, full of colour and emotion. Higginbotham does not judge, but lest we be in any doubt, this is a shocking story, shot through with incompetence, ambition and disregard for human life.
There may be failures of style, but it's hard to fault Higginbotham's research. He has spent 12 years investigating this story, conducting extensive interviews and trawling the archives, some of them only recently declassified, and his account is surely definitive... Higginbotham subscribes to Read's thesis that Chernobyl sparked a chain reaction that eventually destroyed the Soviet Empire, as it "finally shattered the illusion that the USSR was a global superpower armed with technology that led the world".
Midnight In Chernobyl is the most frightening book you’ll read this year, or next. The science is boggling and there is a John Carpenterish tinge to the descriptions of radiation behaviour. A little basic science is useful – and a quick watch of Discovery Channel’s Zero Hour would help with the mechanics of the disaster – but even here there has been some cosmetic standardisation....It’s a topsy-turvy story and Adam Higginbotham has told it with a calm regard for the balance between history and journalism, momentousness and human simplicity. If it’s the most frightening book you’ll read this year, it is also one of the most uplifting.
This is Chernobyl as airport thriller. This wobbling and wavering between the tools of the historian and the language of fiction trivialises so much of popular history... Higginbotham has written a book that reads as a gung-ho nuclear thriller, but this is no compliment... The preponderance of macho action scenes means that too little space is given to analysing... Higginbotham’s desire to write thrilling action scenes does pay off in the chapters about the “Battle of Chernobyl"... It is clear that Higginbotham, who writes for The New Yorker, has done some remarkable research.